Living Columns & Blogs

St. Peter Hospital depot keeps breast milk flowing to babies who need it

A new breast milk depot at Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia collected about 128 gallons of liquid gold during its first six months.

The donation program is a partnership between St. Pete’s and the South Sound Breastfeeding Network. The milk is frozen and shipped to the nonprofit Northwest Mother’s Milk Bank in Portland, which provides milk for hospitals throughout the region, according to Melissa Petit, a nurse and internationally certified lactation consultant with St. Pete’s.

“It goes to the most fragile infants first,” she said. “It’s generally preemies.”

Donors are screened and undergo blood tests for communicable diseases such as HIV and hepatitis B, which can pass through breast milk. According to the milk bank’s website, the organization also doesn’t accept milk from people who use any form of tobacco or illegal drugs or drink more than 2 ounces of alcohol a day.

Each batch of donated milk is tested too. “The milk is all pasteurized,” Petit said. “It’s heavily tested. The screening process is very thorough.”

Some of the donors are moms whose babies received donated milk in a neonatal intensive care unit. Others are women who produce more milk than their babies drink.

Sometimes, bereaved moms will donate to the program.

“I think for the moms, it’s healing because they have a way to give back,” Petit said.

Breast-feeding is on the rise, with about 90 percent of moms in this state initiating breastfeeding, said Gwen Marshall, a registered dietitian and internationally certified lactation consultant with the state Department of Health’s Women, Infant and Children nutrition program.

Not every woman sticks with it, but those who do are nursing their babies longer. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of mothers were breast-feeding for six months in 2010, up 14 percent from a decade earlier.

“We know that breast milk saves lives, especially for these babies at risk,” Marshall said.

Sharing breast milk isn’t a new concept, she said.

“Historically, women have nursed each other’s babies, and they’d share with each other informally,” she said. “But these women knew each other in the community.”

In recent years, some women have turned to Craigslist or other websites to sell their breast milk. It’s a practice that’s not regulated by the state, and it can be dangerous, Marshall said. If the milk is not stored correctly, it can contain harmful bacteria, and it could be cut with formula or cow’s milk, she said.

“If you’re buying breast milk online, it’s buyer beware,” Marshall said.

Online milk-sharing programs such as Eats on Feets use Facebook to match donors willing to give away breast milk with parents who need it, Marshall said. Late last week, the Eats on Feets-Washington page had 1,142 likes and several requests for milk, including one from a mom with young twins in Olympia.

“It’s really a trust issue, and every mom has to decide for herself if the risks outweigh the benefits,” Marshall said.

For nursing moms with an extra supply, it’s hard to see breast milk go to waste, and that’s one of the reasons the Northwest Mother’s Milk Bank was formed. Donors pump at home, freeze it and drop it off at St. Pete’s. It’s kept in a locked chest freezer that was donated by the South Sound Breastfeeding Network. Then it’s shipped to the milk bank for processing.

For more information on how to donate to the milk bank, call 503-469-0955.